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by Jonathan Abarbanel, Windy City Times

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Playwright: Lucy Kirkwood

At: Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted St. Tickets: 312-335-1650;; $20-$99. Runs through: June 9

The hubris of humanity is to believe that each generation leaves the world a better place for its children. In truth, we only leave the world a different place.

Each heralded solution to a problem—DDT, opioids, limitless clean nuclear power—creates new and terrible problems. Still, the fiction will continue as long as humanity believes in unsinkable ships, surgeons as gods, politicians as heroes and that faster is better. This play touches all that with a powerful ecological message ( in our time of a Willfully Ignorant President ), and additionally concerns our acceptance of mortality.

That would be too much for most playwrights to put on the plate, but Lucy Kirkwood pulls it off brilliantly in The Children, a 110-minute three-character play impeccably acted at Steppenwolf under director Jonathan Berry, who's matured into a masterful script-wrangler. Put The Children on your must-see list. ( Chicago Mayor-Elect Lori Lightfoot sat two seats away from me on opening night. )

The Children is set in contemporary England, where retired nuclear engineers Hazel ( Janet Ulrich Brooks ) and Robin ( Yasen Peyankov ) have a small farm and cottage on the seacoast. For nearly 40 years they helped run a nearby nuclear generating station. In fact, it's where they met and married. Recently, the power plant and sea coast were inundated in a freak storm resulting in intermittent electrical power, toxic radioactivity, dying cattle and a risk of radioactive waste pouring into the ocean. Think Japan's 2011 Fukushima Daiichi disaster.

Unexpectedly, they are visited by Rose ( Ora Jones ), a fellow engineer and once-close friend they've not seen in 38 years. She's returned, we ultimately learn, to help save the nuke station and face almost-certain radioactive illness. She wants Hazel, Robin and others to replace younger engineers who still have most of their lives ahead of them. Rose, who never married, has no children; but Hazel and Robin have four adult children and four grandkids, so the personal stakes are higher. Also, Robin and Rose had a history and that hash must be settled, too.

For the first hour of The Children, Kirkwood uses comedy brilliantly as she lays out the exposition and Hazel and Rose ( in particular ) dance around each other. Only slowly does the personal story segue into the ecological theme and we understand the consequences. The transition arrives at the precise point one is saying, "There must be more here than an old romantic triangle," yet The Children is framed in such personal terms that it never becomes preachy.

Berry's crisp but unhurried pacing elicits engaging, warm and truthful performances from master actors Brooks, Jones and Peyankov, Scenic designer Chelsea M. Warren's refurbished-but-still-rustic cottage is surprisingly large but provides a believably lived-in sense of place.

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